Policy and murder

Mark is right to deplore Haley Barbour’s savage idea that Mississippi (of all states) would benefit from cutting social services to its poorest people, and the deaths of innocents traceable to the policy are fairly charged to it. But it isn’t murder, and I differ from his rhetoric.

Many policy choices entail a gross cost in shortened lives, even shortened right at the start. We make them all the time, and we’re right to do so; otherwise we would treat a year of life as having an infinite cost, and live in some sort of padded pods with a TV, never go anywhere, and eat Purina complete nutrient kibbles . Lots of things are worth paying some number of statistical lives for, even lives of identifiable groups like drivers, firefighters, and even poor babies. Lots of things are not, like enriching the beneficiaries of Republican tax cuts, or electing Republicans, which is why Barbour got it wrong. But it’s not murder, nor even ipso facto wrong, however callous or cruel a particular decision may be, to knowingly implement a program merely because it causes more people to die before they otherwise would.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.